Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Fictional fatalities

So this past Monday there was a new episode of How I Met Your Mother, which elaborated on the show’s emotionally rich and narratively deep mythology in a profound way: by indicating for the first time the existence of a sequel to The Wedding Bride.

I kid, of course. The Wedding Bride 2: There Goes the Honeymoon! is now a real thing in the HIMYM universe (or as real as anything can be said to be when relayed by an unreliable narrator) but despite my previous fascination with the whole imaginary improbably all-time top grossing romantic comedy, that was not the element of the episode that made me sit up and take notice. Much like the rest of teh interwebs, I was sucker-punched by the all-but-explicit references to death and grief in the future-set framing device.

Full disclosure, my first reaction was deep, unconscious denial. The Mother makes a reference to mothers missing their daughters’ weddings and Ted gets all choked up, and I scratch my head and say, hmmm, does Ted’s mother die right around the time that Ted’s sister is getting married? But within hours of the episode’s conclusion I was online and reading comment threads on review recaps and had things helpfully spelled out for me: the Mother is going to die before Penny gets married. In fact, so the prevailing theory goes, the Mother is going to die before Penny turns 16 (which is how old she is in the overall series framing device), because Ted is telling his kids how he met their mother in memoriam.

It’s one of those things that seems obvious in the way it fits into place in the big picture, like the solution to a well-constructed mystery, surprising yet inevitable. As many people have pointed out, it serves as a kind of rebuttal to a joke often made at HIMYM’s expense, that Ted’s kids certainly are being very patient listening to their father’s long rambling stories-within-stories which all seem to dance evasively around their ostensible point. In the context of trying to connect with an absent mom taken from them far too soon, it makes a bit more sense that they’d indulge their dad.

Oddly enough, another bit of pop culture consumed by both me and my wife over this past weekend (where I am lumping Monday night because Monday was a weekend-extending snow day) was the fifth episode of Season Three of Downton Abbey, which I will save you the trouble of looking up in the wiki series guides and refer to as The One Where Sybil Dies. Sorry if that constitutes a spoiler, but in my defense it had long ago been spoiled for me and my wife, which of course is the price we more or less willingly pay for watching the show on Blu-ray after (sometimes long, long after) its American broadcast. So we knew what was coming, and we knew some of the specifics as well, all of which added a significant amount of poignancy to the ample foreshadowing in which the writers indulged. It was a brutal hour of television, terribly emotionally manipulative, which on the one hand should be expected from a soapy period-piece melodrama, but on the other hand still managed to be genuinely shocking, spoilers notwithstanding. For all the characters who had lingered on death’s door in beds at Downton, who had recovered miraculously or had ultimately succumbed, I’m pretty sure Sybil represents the first time that a character was lost who was also genuinely well-regarded by the audience. (Surely Lavinia was never anything more than an obstacle for Matthew and Mary’s love story, and William the footman was a pitiable plot device for Daisy.) Maybe I’m forgetting someone, but if Sibyl didn’t merit the only cries of “No, she can’t die!” then at least she earned the loudest. (So far. Again, we’re still a season and a half behind.)

(Also, as it happens the little guy has re-discovered Finding Nemo recently, which is yet another story that begins with a young father and mother but then the mother is lost in a tragic happenstance. Lots of dead mothers and abandoned children up on the big screen tv of late in our house, is what I’m getting at.)

At any rate, How I Met Your Mother is a sitcom, not a melodrama, so this abrupt left turn into pathos is potentially even more upsetting than too-good-for-this-world Sybil shuffling off the mortal coil. Why in the world would a comedy, a sex farce when you come right down to it, build for nine years up to the diametric opposite of “and they lived happily ever after”? Some people are freaking out about this, and I can’t say I blame them, really. It does feel like a colossal bait-and-switch, asking an audience to invest in a lighthearted, sometimes surreal little weekly romp about twenty-somethings in New York who gradually become thirty-somethings as they figure out life and love, whether it’s the love they already have or the love they’re still looking for, and then having it all culminate in the idea that nothing lasts forever and its a cold universe we live in that would both hold off interminably on letting you meet your soulmate and then snatch them away cruelly and senselessly in the blink of an eye.

If you dig your heels in on the argument that sitcoms are for escapism and yuks, not verisimilitude or the philosophy of life, then it looks like the series finale of HIMYM is not going to be to your liking. But if you’re open to the possibility of a sitcom having something to say about the uncomfortable realities of the world, then the end of the story should at least prove interesting. Don’t get me wrong, it could also be a horribly misguided, ill-conceived trainwreck that forever tarnishes the legacy of the show. But whether or not it actually sticks the landing remains to be seen.

Another joking but pointed criticism of HIMYM which I’ve seen, which takes on an even sharper edge in the light of this week’s revelation, is that Ted’s story of how he met the kids’ mother, as related to said kids, is essentially a long litany of all the women he met who did not turn out to be the mother of his children, women whom he nevertheless pursued and wooed (and sexed, repeatedly and extensively). That is a weird story to tell your kids if their mother is upstairs, and decidedly questionable if not outright tacky if she is recently deceased. But I’ve given that some thought, and what occurs to me is this: it’s human nature, when life deals you a bad hand, to speculate about other ways that things could have gone down. And those alternate histories of your own life invariably involve a trade-off of some sort. Every disappointment avoided would entail also missing out on a certain happiness, because everything is a mixed bag. So ultimately, that’s the question that inspires Ted’s story. Knowing what he knows in the year 2030, does he wish things turned out differently? Does he wish things had worked out with him and Robin (or Karen or Victoria or Stella or Zoe &c. &c. &c.) instead of The Mother? Would he trade the fifteen or so years he got with the woman who was perfect for him in exchange for a proper lifetime, fifty years or more, with any of the other women who could have theoretically been divergence points in the story? Would he rather have had a long, moderately contenting, commonplace marriage of convenience with any of those old flames, as opposed to the brief bright star of The One and the attendant pain of its being snuffed out (not to mention dodging the long years of despairing loneliness spent looking for The Mother when he could have perhaps settled sooner)?

This is me once again trying to reach out and write the show for them, but I hope that’s the point of it all. I hope that there’s a point in the final episode where Ted makes that absolutely clear in no uncertain terms, that he knew a great many women and give or take a slight twist of fate here or there he could have married any one of them (let’s not quibble about how many of them ultimately rejected him) but in the end he married The Mother and he never regretted that. Even standing over her grave with a broken heart, he never second-guessed. He wouldn’t trade it away for anything, certainly not any of the also-rans. It’s a slightly off-kilter way of demonstrating love and/or dealing with grief, but HIMYM has always been a slightly off-kilter show.


  1. I too figured she was going to die up until some smartass on the interwebs pointed out that the writers love to jerk us around -- as well they should -- so the fact that they're telegraphing that ending as hard as they are means it almost certainly won't happen. HIMYM, even more than most sitcoms, likes to set up a play and then invert it.

    So what they're gonna do is make it seem more and more a lock that The Mother died, then show that she almost did but made it out okay. This isn't my theory, but I wish it were, because I think it's probably right:

    The Mother dedicates herself to eradicating poverty. That's an odd thing to bring up for her as a character, because it's such a huge goal and yet never really touched upon. Yeah, she wrote a book, but that's still a negligible story payoff for such a huge ideal. It's also not set up just to mark her as an idealist, because it hasn't been shown to affect anything about her life beyond her choosing an econ major. If the point were "she's an idealist," we'd have seen more about that in other actions she's taken. But it hasn't mattered. Yet.

    If her goal is to eradicate poverty, she might well end up travelling to nasty spots around the world, possibly war zones. She may do it frequently. Thus, Ted's tearing up at the Farhampton meal in 2024 was not because she was going to die, but that she was going to put herself in harm's way and might die. Maybe she did it several times. And maybe what's happening in 2030 is that Ted's telling the kids the story of how he and The Mother met just before she comes home one last time. The end of the show is the kids jumping up in excitement because the door opened and Mom's finally home for good, out of danger.

    This ties up several threads very well and would blindside us with the Big Sappy Ending the show has made us anticipate for so long. The emotional whiplash would give the end its power.

    Man, I wish I had thought of this theory. It's way too good.

    1. Hmmm, I don't know. It is a good theory, certainly in the sense that I want it to be true because I want Ted's story to have a happy ending, and possibly in the way it fits some of the facts, but I suspect that under careful scrutiny, if you pored over the evidence, specifically the 2024 flash-forward dialogue, it wouldn't really hold up.

      I acknowledge you're absolutely right that setting up an expectation and inverting it is a hallmark of HIMYM storytelling. For that matter, setting up an expectation, then inverting it, and then inverting THAT is something HIMYM loves doing, too. (E.g. the original slap bet: Barney is convinced Robin did porn, the audience assumes Barney can't be right, then Barney finds a video with Robin dressed as a schoolgirl propositioning her teacher,Barney WAS right, THEN it turns out that's just the intro to a Robin Sparkles video.) Complicating all this is the question of where we are in the diagram of the show as a huge overarching whole. It may be that the last six episodes are all considered "the end". So in that sense, for eight-plus seasons HIMYM has been setting up the play of "it took a long convoluted route, but eventually Ted found the love of his life and lived happily ever after" and now, at the end, they are inverting that with "not so fast on the 'happily ever after' part."

      Could there be an inversion within the inversion, where everything seems to indicate the Mother dying young and at the real-and-true end, the last scene of the finale, she's actually alive, whether in the scenario you describe or some other escape hatch? Sure, I guess it's possible. My instincts say it's more possible in general than in the specific theory you brought up. In the 2024 scenes Ted doesn't seem at all angry or resentful. If the Mother were heading into certain deadly danger by choice, even because "ideals and reasons", you'd think his emotions would be more complicated than pure pre-emptive grief. Also, why is she coming home for good in 2030? Because with that one last trip she really did eradicate poverty? Seems like a stretch, even for a show that has implied the invention of hologram cell phones and hinted at the possible existence of time travel.

      Also, some smartass on the interwebs I ran across pointed out that (1) the actors who play Ted's kids were asked to film a "final scene" for the series and they did that before they even cast Cristin Milioti (2) we still don't know the Mother's name and (3) it would be pretty impactful to have the last scene of the finale be Future Ted and Penny and Luke on a graveside visit, and they say what they came to say, and they leave, and the camera pans down to the tombstone, and that's when we finally learn the mother's name from the engraving that says "[NAME] MOSBY BELOVED WIFE AND MOTHER 1978 - 2026"

      Again, I don't want that ending, necessarily, but it seems plausible.